This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
President Theodore Roosevelt was a prominent voice for elimination of the spoils system in federal employment. Roosevelt served as a member of the Civil Service Commission from 1889 to 1895 and remained an advocate for the career civil service for the remainder of his life.
Roosevelt believed the spoils system was like a cancer on public life. He once wrote, “The government cannot endure permanently if administered on a spoils basis. If this form of corruption is permitted and encouraged, other forms of corruption will inevitably follow in its train. When a department at Washington, or at a state capitol, or in the city hall in some big town is thronged with place-hunters and office-mongers who seek and dispense patronage from considerations of personal and party greed, the tone of public life is necessarily so lowered that the bribe-taker and the bribe-giver, the blackmailer and the corruptionist, find their places ready prepared for them.”
So why am I writing about a president who has been dead for 110 years? Because some of the actions being taken or proposed in Washington endanger the career civil service that Roosevelt so tirelessly advocated to expand and preserve. Here are two examples of recent attacks on the career civil service:
Insight by Infor: This exclusive e-book highlights how the military services and defense agencies are rethinking their approach to managing their supply chains and how data is driving those decisions.
While MSPB can function with only two members, it is best to have all three positions filled to enable tie-breaking. It is clearly in the best interests of the civil service to have a functioning MSPB, so rapid movement to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominees would be wise. As for the idea that MSPB is just a job protection agency for federal workers, there are no facts to back it up. In fact, 8 in 10 cases are decided in favor of agencies. Not many people would think that batting .800 or more is bad.
Is the civil service perfect? Of course not. As Roosevelt said, “There are, of course, defects and shortcomings in the merit system. We do not for a moment pretend that it is perfect. We only assert that it is a great improvement upon the old spoils system, and that as a matter of fact in every instance where it has been tried in good faith it has worked well.”
The career civil service rules need updating for a modern workplace, but returning to a spoils system is the logical outcome of removing or substantially weakening civil service protections. The only interests served by the spoils system are those of politicians. Before the Pendleton Act created the merit-based civil service, wholesale firings resulted from every election, with their replacements hired based on politics rather than merit. That was the problem that the civil service solved, however imperfectly.
As Roosevelt said, “They can no longer be scrambled for in a struggle as ignoble and brutal as the strife of pirates over plunder; they no longer serve as a vast bribery chest with which to debauch the voters of the country. Those holding them no longer keep their political life by the frail tenure of service to the party boss and the party machine; they stand as American citizens, and are allowed the privilege of earning their own bread without molestation so long as they faithfully serve the public.”
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.